Politics of Poverty

Smith has all five senses to run USAID effectively

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President Obama announces the nomination of Gayle Smith to be Administrator of USAID.

It is not every day that the fight against poverty and injustice gets good news.  The United States could do so much more to support those in need.  But today the news was good.   President Obama entrusted leadership of the world’s best resourced development agency, the United States Agency for International Development, to Gayle Smith.

Why does this appointment make such good sense? Because of Smith’s five senses.

Eyes wide open and clear vision:  Smith knows the organization she will lead having served as Senior Advisor to the Administrator and USAID Chief of Staff under Brian Atwood.  As a co-founder of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, she has a clear vision for how to make USAID stronger.

Ears of those who matter.  She has spent the last seven years advising the President on global development, democracy and humanitarian issues and is trusted and respected by his inner circle.   Reading the new Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, launched this week, “Development” still risks being the third “D” in US foreign policy after “Defense” and “Diplomacy”.   Smith knows this.  Unlike her predecessors in the White House, who got to craft big Presidential Initiatives like PEPFAR and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, she has focused on cross agency initiatives like Partnership for Growth, and the Open Government Partnership, and made sure development has a seat at every national security and political table when it matters.

Touching the issues and people that matter:  Often in Washington, late in an Administration, political debts get paid for the wrong reasons with these choice jobs.  Smith has been fighting global poverty and injustice for decades, from Washington and 20 years in Africa.  She understands that development is not just about transferring “stuff”, paid for by aid, to the less fortunate, but about, “harnessing all the tools at our disposal to support countries in their own path to prosperity”.

The ability to smell trouble:     As a protagonist on the Help Commission in 2008, she gets Congressional skepticism about USAID, but has big shoes to fill on this front—Dr. Shah visited more members of Congress than any other Administrator and won over both sides of the aisle.

A voice for justice.  Most important of all, from my perspective, Smith gets that poverty and injustice are not accidents of history or birth, but the denial of basic rights, caused by unaccountable elites and failed political systems.  As a former journalist living in Africa, she didn’t blame the poor for not knowing “how to fish” or feed themselves.  She gets that development is about political will and strong institutions as well as better ideas and innovation.

Oxfam America doesn’t accept US government funding, in part so that we can critique the government when it comes up short (like this report calling for USAID to be disbanded).

But today, I am thinking about the women and kids sitting on rubble in Nepal, in bullet ridden homes in South Sudan, cramped refugee camps in Syria, and decimated economies in Ebola stricken Liberia.  They need the world’s most powerful development agency to be led by someone who gets all the dimensions of their struggles, and they need the Senate to confirm Ms. Smith quickly.  So today, I’m celebrating.

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